Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Translation techniques

Candidates should also be aware of strategies that can assist in the production of faithful translations. As a guide, consider the following recognised techniques:

Direct translation techniques

They are used when structural and conceptual elements of the source language can be transposed into the target language:

  • Borrowing: taking words straight into another language, also known as ‘transfer’ (eg using baguette, Schadenfreude or glasnost in an English text)
  • Calque: borrowing a phrase from another language and translating it literally word-forword (eg translating the French marché aux puces as ‘flea market’ in English or the English skyscraper as ‘gratte-ciel’ in French)
  • Literal translation: a word-for-word translation

Indirect (oblique) translation techniques

They are used when the structural or conceptual elements of the source language cannot be directly translated without altering meaning or upsetting the grammatical and stylistic elements of the target language:

  • Transposition: changing the sequence of parts of speech (for example, rendering a French noun with an English verb, such as après sa mort ‘after she died’)
  • Modulation: using a phrase that is different in the source and target languages to convey the same idea (for example, German uses Lebensgefahr [literally, ‘danger to life’] where English uses ‘danger of death’ or a French speaker will refer to the dernier étage of a building where an English speaker will refer to the ‘top floor’)
  • Reformulation or equivalence: expressing something in a completely different way, as is common, for example, when translating idioms or proverbs that do not have direct equivalents in other languages
  • Adaptation: expressing something specific to the source language culture in a totally different way that is more familiar in or appropriate to the target language culture (a good example would be paraphrasing expressions in English deriving from cricket, such as ‘being on a sticky wicket’, ‘having had a good innings’ or ‘bowling a googly’)
  • Compensation: expressing somewhere else in the target text something that cannot be translated and whose meaning would be lost in the immediate translation (such as replacing a reference in a French newspaper to Quai D’Orsay with one to ‘the French Foreign Ministry’)